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The Ten Best Books of 2007
5. Sudden Address: Selected Lectures 1981-2006 by Bill Berkson
It’s terrific that Cuneiform Press was able to put together this magnificent volume of straight talk about visual art and literature. The essay on Frank O’Hara alone is worth the price of admission.
Bill Berkson went to Brown and The New School so it is really no surprise I am fond of him.
Go check out much finer writing about this book and BB in general from John Latta. Great stuff.
It’s sad, however, that this edition is limited to 500 copies. Fortunately, I have told you before they are all gone. These babies will be worth a fortune. Invest now.
Here’s one of the finest essays in the book, so excerpted because I can include parts of it without losing the feeling of the whole. For the full version, you’ll have to buy.
“Travels with Guston”
by Bill Berkson
Travel broadens. I like to go see paintings, but from where I live, except for the paintings in our house, I usually have to travel some distance to see what I want to see, or to be surprised by what I hadn’t known about beforehand. To see the Guston show here, and not having seen it in familiar places like San Francisco or New York or even Washington where I almost went to see it last spring, seems kind of odd. I don’t mean to say, “Denver, of all places!” — but allow for the fact that I am less prepared to know what I’ve come to look at. Which is good in a way: why should I know, on the basis of memory, anything about these paintings?
I feel a bit as if Philip is calling on me to travel, so to speak, the length and the breadth of the land” to resume our talks and correspondence. Just as in a letter he once wrote, “Why don’t you get ArtNews to back a flight here & we could get it all together?” Personally, we didn’t see each other all that much. Except for the briefest time in New York, we lived in different towns. We wrote a lot of letters. We collaborated on a book of poems and drawings, and I would have certain pictures of his in mind when writing poems. In December I did fly to New York to join in a poets’ homage to Philip’s memory.
“All My Friends Are Magazines” — Broken Social Scene (mp3)
I always have Clark Coolidge to remind me that the best thing a writer can do in the way of criticism is to “continue the dialog.” That’s the theory of the parallel text, where the truest repsonse to a painting or poem is another poem and not an accumulation of idea and description. I subscribe to that theory. For one thing, it keeps you out of the pulpit where the morals of art seem more attractive than engaging it head-on or doing the job. For another thing, once you’ve honestly looked enough at something, you do sort of figure out everybody else has seen it that way too. I do. Everybody agrees on what it is, so the question now becomes, what are you going to do about it? For weeks now I’ve been swimming in the Guston Ocean–but of whose devising? Clark was saying frankly there’s a point at which we have too many ideas. But the assignment here is: Talk. I’m going to lay out the ideas that persist, so that hopefully, we’ll be spared a lot of congestion.
Painting, Smoking, Eating
Guston, related by Coolidge: “What’s wrong with feeling bad?” William Carlos Williams, related to Guston; “WORK–when up, drive in–When down, assume the clerk–There’s plenty of time for both. Work all the time. Manic depression, yes, but learn use to yourself.”
I asked my wife if the stillness in Guston’s paintings bothered her. She said, “All those things are painful to him. He paints his fears. That table saw’s going to cut those guys up. He’s a slice-of-life painter. But no, those little paintings don’t have those fears–the cup, the chair, the book–they’re fearless. I love his line. Perfect. Not automatic at all…”
Forms in Change
There are about ten of Philip’s pictures in our home, but I’m going to deal with only half of them. And the slides aren’t them, but more or less equivalent. First, a drawing I picked out of his studio in 1962, one of those non-stop weaving ones with many loose ends. The lines tend to cross, and there’s a lot of air, like drawing in air. Near the top is a circle, ambiguous about being either a balloon or a rock. In the middle, another funny shape, squared off at one end and narrow like a cardboard box for long thin charcoal but tapered off at the other end like a syringe. Then at the bottom is a kind of schlong like the tracing of an actual thumb pressed flat. Can you see it? This drawing has all the doubting kind of energy I admired from the start–in Guston’s drawings especially–the clean exposure of feeling that unsure, of willing it not to be knee-jerk or banal, short-circuiting that, but being able to trace the discovery of feeling, moving every necessary way with it.
“I’d Like To” — Corinne Bailey Rae (mp3)
A couple of years ago, while living just outside New York, I went into town expressly to see two shows that were there at the same time: November 1979 to be exact, Guston and de Kooning, with about ten blocks of midtown New York meditation-space between them. They meditated on each other beautifully. The Gustons had that fixated look–not rigid, “unsettled” like he says–but perfectly structured like a sentence that stops you in your tracks. At the opening Rudy Burckhardt said, “They’re so funny, I didn’t know he was so funny.” The de Koonings were more of a roller-coaster ride. They had natural movement, only speeded up, like an windstorm or an earthquake. With Guston, every painting guides you to a place where its particular image can be delivered whole. If you move around, it stays the same image, imperturbable. In de Kooning, you get more caught up in his space, in the shift of focus, multiple, slippery, headlong, always coming at you with more. What de Kooning and Guston share, I think, is a degree, not exactly a quality of light–generous to, not interrupted by, detail. Such observations make looking at these pictures sound reasonable. But Guston’s a raving enigma. De Kooning’s a raging bull.
You can ponder these Gustons, or you can recognize how true, see the humor, and let them pass. But not dispose of. Curiosity isn’t really ponderous. The pictures are not the kind to let your mind go off on tangents. They really want you to stay and talk. They speechify. An old bean floats on the table of the sea. Somebody tossed the moon up there. The book is blank, all yours, fill it. Maybe someday you’ll grow powerful enough to shake that cup. But who wants to?
We are in great spirits these days–I’ve gotten to love my secluded way of living–painting at all hours, reading a lot (History-PreHistory)–I don’t know why–it just hit me–and I’m fascinated. Early man, the first art–language and so on. Right now it connects with thoughts and images I’m involved with. Feel good to be ‘outside’ of the present. Maybe it’s the only way to see and feel the present. Anyway, many, many new large pictures getting more ‘unearthly’ and of coure this pulls and attracts.
The images that appear somehow reveal more in terms of forces than what the images represent? Is it possible? So this is what I’ve been after–after so many years–a good heavy foot in the door of this room, finally. What a difference–to live out a painting–instead of just painting it…
Another time, standing in his studio at Woodstock, he looked thoughtful. “Sometimes all you remember from an event is the look in one eye.”
Buy Bill Berkson’s Sudden Address here.
“Ooh La La” — Counting Crows (mp3)
cover of the Faces’ track by the same name.
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